Undead Halloween Terrors of D&D!
Halloween: my favorite holiday! Those who know me know I have a healthy death obsession and when it comes to roleplaying games (and Warhammer) I’m all about the undead. I don’t think I have to define what this is — those who were dead but now walk upon us.
Bringing undead to life in D&D
Longtime players in my campaigns knew they would eventually fight undead. My current campaign is playing the old school B2: Keep on the Borderlands (it’s a second edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons group). Through the evolution of the campaign and the additions I made to the module there ended up being a mass burial of travelers ambushed by a bandit and humanoid alliance, which the group destroyed in a long combat. As this ambush was set up on the major road over 200 travelers were killed before the party tripped and destroyed this ambush.
One of the players, who has played in my campaigns since 1980, commented after the session that ,“Sophie needed some source for her undead — mark my words!” He was right. A few sessions later ghouls started feeding in one of the pits. Then a couple of sessions later merchants camped outside of the Keep (for the bi-weekly market day) and reported humanoid forms shuffling by in the night — zombies!
In case my players read this (and they do), I won’t say how the zombies are a part of the story. Hee hee.
Undead were a a lot tougher in 1E and 2E AD&D. Not the lower end run of the mill skeletons and such — I’m talking certain types of mid to high level undead. They had something in common *thunder and lighting crash ominously* — level drain! That’s right dear reader — you know that 7th fighter you have there? The wight hits you doing 1d4 damage… and drains you of a “life level.” As the 2E Monstrous Compendium says:
“Each blow that the wight lands drains one level from the victim, reducing Hit Dice, class bonuses, spell abilities, and so forth. Thus, a 9th-level wizard struck by a wight loses 1-4 hit points and becomes an 8th-level wizard; he has the spells and hit points of an 8th-level wizard and he fights as an 8th-level wizard. Persons who are slain by the energy draining powers of a wight are doomed to rise again as wights under the direct control of their slayer.”
The wight was the lowest form of that type. Spectres drain two levels per hit. In 1E AD&D vampires drained three per hit (in 2E AD&D it’s down to two). Think about the classic module Ravenloft. Lots of vampires in there. The hardest part is your 12th level cleric gets hit by a vampire and is now 9th level. Hit again? Down to 6th level! Now you’re in trouble! Oh, and that draining? No long rest here — it’s permanent! However, there was a 7th level spell back in the day called restoration, which would bring back a lost level. This 7th level spell meant you needed a 14th level cleric. Back then there weren’t many of those NPCs except in major cities.
Undead were genuinely feared by players back then. After all you’ve played the character for months or years and one hit removes the fruit of your labors and knocks you back to lower levels. It’s really frustrating.
Then there were ghosts. Each hit your character aged 10-40 years. The mere sight of a ghost aged your character 10 years (saving throw applied). Elves didn’t care, but humans? Aging 40 years is half their life!
Okay, so where does one get their ideas for spooky scary adventures? I used books and magazines back then. I own a lot of books on ghosts, including one called Haunted Britain which had a paragraph about every known haunting in the United Kingdom. Another great resource are horror magazines like Eerie or Creepy. In 2E AD&D there was a whole horror setting called Ravenloft with its own rules for the demiplane. A series of sourcebooks from Ravenloft called Van Richten’s Guide gave tons of ideas about specific types of undead, like Van Richten’s Guide to Ghosts or Van Richten’s Guide to Ancient Dead. These can be found secondhand. There are also great modules from the old days as well. The Desert of Desolation series is a particular favorite of mine, as is Tomb of Horrors (the old school one — not the watered down new version). Any module that includes, “Everything it rolls over is squashed to a pulp. There is no appeal” is hard core!
Also, look for artwork featuring undead. What’s the story behind the medieval woodcut of those dancing skeletons? That vampire looks nasty — what’s her story?
All monsters have some form of story and a good Dungeon Master knows how to incorporate them into a campaign. Remember, a powerful form of undead will probably not be a random encounter. The aforementioned Ravenloft module had a vampire exerting its influence over an entire mountain valley nation. A lich will have a network of minions and plans within plans. Mummies are ancient kings and will normally be found in trap filled tombs. Think of Smaug in The Hobbit. The dragon had an entire Desolation.
Low level undead can be anywhere, really. But why are they there? Who put those skeletons there? Why is there a wight in the cave? What brought a wraith to the necropolis? The ghouls I added to my campaign were there because of the large number of bodies in the mass graves and ghouls beget ghouls by killing the living, in this case guard patrols from the Keep.
So put some thought into your undead. The major ones shouldn’t be frequent — they should be like once a campaign but they should be memorable as heck encounters players talk about long after they become skeletons holding their rusty spears! And don’t skimp on the atmosphere text. Make it creepy!
Happy Halloween, or Blessed Samhain if you celebrate!